Shashi Kapoor always appeared, to me, as the least talented of the three sons of Prithviraj Kapoor. Though it does not, in any way, imply that I found him lacking in talent. It would be more appropriate to say that superlative performances from Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor had given rise to certain expectations from this kid brother of theirs, to which he did not quite live up to.
Yet, he possessed a distinct trait which places him in a class of his own. It was his taste for good literature and quality cinema and theatre and the courage to risk his career, as a mainstream "star", by becoming a part of many such ventures.
One can not think that a run of the mill actor would have dared to play the protagonist in Siddhartha - that celebrated but rather obscure philosophical work from Hermann Hesse, the cinematic version of which woefully failed to do justice to the book and may have been talked about more, in the repressed Indian society, for some explicit scenes which were a rarity in the 1970s.
The same passion for telling a good story and, in the bargaining, ending up producing and even playing a character bordering the villainous, may have made him a part of "Junoon". Here was a movie which always compels me to revise my opinions about the actor who is, sadly, more remembered for routine commercial flicks. "Junoon" had him team up with Shyam Benegal, who had by then become a towering figure as far as the "parallel cinema" was concerned, but remained an untouchable for many an image conscious, commercial success-chasing actor. Benegal and Kapoor worked wonders again in "Kalyug" - the only experiment of its kind wherein the ancient epic of Mahabharata was retold in a modern set up.
Kapoor's willingness to experiment with unorthodox film makers saw him team up with another parallel cinema stalwart Govind Nihalani. "Vijeta" could be called the most authentic portrayal of life in the Indian Air Force till date. Though that part was played, to perfection, by Kapoor's soon forgotten son Kunal, Shashi himself played no less pivotal a role. While it may not have been too great a challange to play the role of the father of his own son, he mesmerizes by the finesse with which he brings out the paradoxical complexity of his character - boorish, yet vulnerable, licentious yet committed.
It was probably this refinement of taste that brought him close to the British actress Jennifer Kendal with whom he shared screen space in "Junoon". Jennifer proved her mettle by playing to perfection an emotionally fragile old woman in 36 Chowringhee Lane. The couple shall always be remembered for Prithvi Theatre, the most befitting tribute to the veteran of the Kapoor family who had started his own career on the stage.
May his demise inspire many aspiring actors and film makers to draw inspiration from the unique life of the unique man.